Migrant workers face roadblocks in fleeing from alleged abuse
The escape began with a 4 a.m. taxi and a worker fleeing a rural Alberta farm with little more than the clothes on his back. The aim was southern Ontario; the conduit was a Mennonite truck driver worried about workplace abuse.
It was the start of a three-day whiteknuckle drive from Redcliff to Leamington, one of several cross-country trips by seven migrant workers who absconded from one of Western Canada’s largest vegetable producers, claiming mistreatment.
The claims form part of a series of applications for open work permits through a federal program for vulnerable workers launched in 2019.
While migrant workers’ right to be in Canada is usually tied to a single workplace, the program allows them to find an alternative job.
To date, the government has approved two such permits for former employees of El Dorado Vegetable Farms; three more are currently being processed, said Santiago Escobar of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, who provided support through the application process.
Story of man who fled Alberta farm exposes flaws in program that fails to protect workers, advocates say
But the hurdles to approval — and what happens after approval is granted — expose the limitations of a program Escobar calls a “Band-Aid” solution to a migrant labour program that puts workers “at risk of exploitation.”
In an email to the Star, a spokesperson for El Dorado said the farm has employed temporary foreign workers for 25 years and has been subject to numerous Service Canada inspections with no violations found. The farm said it has never been contacted by workers or government authorities about the allegations of abuse.
“We have many workers that have been employees for years and request to come back to our farm year after year,” the statement said.
According to past court cases about land usage, El Dorado is “one of the largest vegetable growers in Alberta, if not in Canada,” with some 7,000 acres under cultivation. One former employee, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, says he was one of about 130 migrant labourers at the operation based in Redcliff, outside Medicine Hat.
The worker’s now-accepted open work permit application, which was reviewed by the Star, details his past experiences — and his quiet escape.
After arriving on the farm almost a decade ago, the worker alleged he experienced “physical, psychological and financial abuse” for years, according to his application. The farm gave no formal training, the worker said, and retained its employees’ passports, which is not permitted under temporary foreign worker program rules. El Dorado also failed to provide proper pay stubs, the application says.
“I do not really know how much I was making, nor the expensive deductions made on every paycheque,” the application reads.
The worker, who shared accommodations with up to a dozen others, said he was told the farm paid a piece rate based on how much produce workers could harvest in a day. He estimates earning around $800 to $1,000 every two weeks for 80 hours of work.
“Perhaps, as I only attended elementary school, the employer takes advantage of us,” reads his application
The employer’s son also allegedly verbally abused workers on a “regular basis,” the application says, calling workers “stupid” and “pieces of s---.”
The employer’s son “terminated all workers who complained or who did not want to work when it was snowing and under -20 C as we were sent to work without proper clothing,” the application says.
In response to the Star’s questions, El Dorado’s spokesperson said housing is inspected annually and workers were “always appropriately dressed for extreme weather.” The farm said it only retained documents at the request of “workers and their governments to help keep their passports in a safe environment.” A “comprehensive harassment policy” was regularly reviewed with workers and no complaints have been filed to date, according to the spokesperson.
The farm did not respond to questions about providing pay stubs; it said while it does pay piece rates, a hand-held tracker ensures “all workers are paid at least their hourly minimum for every hour worked.”
“Workers that excel at piece work well exceed their hourly minimum. Any deductions on their pay are approved deductions by Service Canada and signed for by the worker themselves.”
The worker interviewed by the Star said he returned to Alberta every year in order to support his wife, three children and parents in Guatemala. But last season was different.
“At work and at the house, it was nearly impossible to keep any distance as recommended to avoid the contraction of COVID-19,” his open work permit application says. “We did not receive masks nor hand sanitizer.”
El Dorado said in its statement that it provided full pay for quarantining workers as well as personal protective gear. The farm said it passed two Service Canada inspections and “put up information posters in each house with all the proper protocols in Spanish.”
The Guatemalan worker said he was not aware of any COVID cases at El Dorado, but the convergence of his pay concerns, health and safety issues and the alleged verbal harassment spurred him to action. One of his colleagues had already obtained an open work permit; another had found a new job in Ontario’s agricultural heartland, Leamington. The father of three hoped he could do the same.
On an early October morning, the worker and a friend slid out of their bunkhouse without any belongings and called a taxi to take them to the nearest town, according to his permit application. They were picked up by a Mennonite man who spoke Spanish and had met the workers during deliveries to the farm.
“He knew of the abuses we were experiencing,” the worker’s application says.
The Mennonite man offered to drive them to Saskatchewan at no cost; from there, he arranged for a friend from Leamington to meet the migrant workers at a KFC and drive the rest of the way.
The worker said he paid around $700 for this second leg of the trip. Fearing he would be caught, the worker said the group stopped only to briefly rest and eat as they rushed through the plains toward Ontario.
“The landscape was beautiful, but it didn’t feel that way,” the worker told the Star. “Because we didn’t know what would happen to us next.”
Former co-workers who had already left El Dorado promised there would be plenty of opportunities in Leamington, the worker said. But once he arrived, he faced another hurdle: his former employer still had his passport.
Without it, he could not apply for an open work permit that would give him the legal right to continue working in Canada. UFCW’s Escobar contacted the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who were able to retrieve the documents, according to emails with the law enforcement agency.
In July, the worker received a letter from the federal government: his open work permit had been approved.
Two of the other seven workers who left El Dorado have not been as lucky, Escobar said. By the time some workers connected with support groups in Leamington, their original temporary foreign worker permits had expired — making them ineligible to apply for an open work permit.
That reflects a “real gap in the system,” said Shelley Gilbert of Legal Assistance of Windsor (LAW), which provides support to migrant workers including those who left El Dorado.
“There’s no flexibility around some of those types of requirements.”
To Escobar, there are other significant flaws, too: in total, UFCW has helped over 135 temporary foreign workers access open work permits, he said. But of those, he estimates less than 10 per cent have been able to find a new employer.
“(Employers) find out that someone is holding an open work permit, meaning this worker has complained. They don’t want that kind of worker,” he said.
Many of those workers end up as “easy targets” for temporary employment agencies, said Escobar.
“(Some of) these temporary work agencies collude with unscrupulous employers. They’re taking advantage of these workers.”
“I’ve certainly had workers who have had decent experiences (with agencies) who help them with transportation and connect them with farms,” added Gilbert.
“And then I’ve had other experiences where workers have been terribly exploited … sexually assaulted in some circumstances, in order to be able to keep working.”
The Guatemalan worker interviewed by the Star said he has found employment in a Leamington greenhouse: a tough job in the heat, he said, but significantly better than his last workplace.
But because open work permits for vulnerable workers are only valid for a maximum of one year and cannot be renewed, the future remains uncertain.
“I think the permit should last longer,” he said.
Advocates have long demanded permanent residency upon arrival for temporary foreign workers, which would provide them with the same ability to leave bad jobs as other workers in Canada.
In a statement, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada spokesperson Julie Lafortune said the federal government “takes the safety and dignity” of migrant workers seriously and has issued over 1,250 open work permits to vulnerable workers since the program began.
The federal department has “continued to update guidance … elaborating on examples of abuse, including in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Lafortune added. The department said it does not track how many of those who receive open work permits are able to find new jobs.
For the two remaining El Dorado workers ineligible for an open work permit, Escobar said UFCW is exploring other avenues, like applying for a temporary resident permit for trafficking victims.
That process comes with hurdles too, said Gilbert: immigration officials rarely recognize labour trafficking specifically and often “don’t understand how coercion can impact a survivor of labour trafficking.”
The Immigration Department said it does not collect data on how many temporary resident permits have been issued to labour trafficking victims; in total, 780 victims of human trafficking (including sex trafficking) and their family members have received permits since the program began a decade ago.
Ultimately, the former El Dorado worker from Guatemala hopes his own story will at least help others still at the farm.
“I want this abuse to end for everyone,” his application says. “No human being should have to tolerate any type of abuse due to not having another choice to survive.”
“(Some of) these temporary work agencies collude with unscrupulous employers. They’re taking advantage of these workers.” SANTIAGO ESCOBAR
UNITED FOOD AND COMMERCIAL WORKERS UNION